Italy Shuts Ports to Migrant Boat, Tells Malta to Open Its Doors
Italy will refuse to let a humanitarian boat carrying more than 600 migrants dock at any of its ports and has asked the Mediterranean island of Malta to open its doors to the vessel, an official said on Sunday.
Malta said it had nothing to do with the rescue operation, opening the prospect of a diplomatic stand-off between the two European Union allies.
The move by Italy's new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League, is part of efforts to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of migrants into the country.
More than 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. Numbers have dropped dramatically in recent months, but there has been a rise in rescues in recent days, presenting Salvini with his first test as minister.
The Aquarius is operated by the charity SOS Mediterranee, which said on Twitter earlier on Sunday that it had taken on board 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women.
The charity said the group of mainly sub-Saharan Africans were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya and included hundreds who were plucked from the sea by Italian naval units and then transferred to the Aquarius.
"The boat is now heading north towards a secure port," SOS Mediterranee tweeted on Sunday without specifying its destination, though virtually every such migrant boat over the past five years has ended up in Italy.
Its route north will take it past Malta, and an official said that Salvini had written to the government of the small island state asking it to let the Aquarius dock there.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said that Italy would not open its ports to the Aquarius.
There was no comment from the Italian Interior Ministry or the local coastguard.
Malta said the rescue operations happened in international waters off Libya and were coordinated by Italy.
"Malta is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority in this case. Malta will observe prevailing laws," its government said in a brief statement.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome and Chris Scicluna in Malta Editing by David Goodman)